Three Old Pros

McBrideNow that I’ve written that title, let me check. Christian McBride qualified as a young lion in the early 1990s, but he’s just turned forty. He’s got some old soul, though, perhaps the result of coming up with Bobby Watson’s group, playing with Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson, and Freddy Hubbard. He’s a master of control, a craftsman of the first order and an ideal mate for the his very talented pianist Christian Sands, himself a protege of old soul Billy Taylor. Rounding out the trio is an equally top-rank player, Ulysses Owens, Jr. The name of the CD, on Mack Avenue records, is Out Here, and it’s very satisfying, clean and varied with tight, focused performances. This is jazz composition and performance of the highest caliber. There’s a lot of strong material here, but McBride’s own “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” is especially fine. Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time” is wistful, pensive, and sweet, nicely played by Sands. Dr. Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” is another of the CD’s best tracks, mostly because of the strolling, gently swinging motion of McBride’s bass, and its interplay with the Sands’ piano. Best of all: McBride bowing his way through the sentimental melody, “I Have Dreamed.” Selecting individual tracks is fun for me because everything here is so well-constructed and winning, but the funk of “Who’s Making Love” is lots of fun–with McBride doing a bit of showboating on a tune that can easily handle it. If you’re beginning to think about gifts for the holiday season, this is one in the category of “you can’t go wrong.”

So who’s older: pianist Keith Jarrett or vibraphonist Gary Burton? Both musicians started their career in the early 1960s, both have recorded dozens of albums, both are veterans of the jazz fusion era and managed to forge remarkable careers as collaborators.

2200 XJarrett’s work is immediately magical, glorious in its improvisation and sonic exploration. He’s been doing these albums for decades, and yet, every time I put a Jarrett CD on (or, for that matter, an LP), I’m immediately transported into the filagree of his imagination, sipping a drink at an after-hours jazz bar where the player is extraordinary and I just don’t want the evening to ever end. Recorded live at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, the CD called Somewhere begins with the  mind-bending “Deep Space,” and here, it’s Jarrett’s show with just the right additional color and light provided by double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette; later in the track (the second part is Miles Davis’s “Solar,” their interplay moves the music into an even more interesting exploration, a testament to the extreme skill, experience and love of experimentation that these three musicians consistently offer. So that’s one track, again the first, and again, a favorite. (And I suppose I should mention that the sonic fidelity of these recordings is at such a high level, it would be difficult to imagine a disc sounding any better.) There are some favorite standards here (mine, anyway); it’s difficult for me not to be captivated by Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere;” and the less-often-heard “Stars Fell on Alabama” and the Jimmy van Heusen- Johnny Mercer tune, “I Thought About You.” Ooops–I’m listening to the wrong track–that’s really catchy, and less schticky than I remembered: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”–well, a little schtick for me. Back to the dark night sky and mystery of “Stars Fell…” and my mind easily drifts to Perseids and stardust. What a lovely album.

GaryBurtonThe old guy in the crowd–Gary Burton is 70 to Keith Jarrett’s 68–opens with a Antonio Sanchez’s rocking drum, instantly establishing a more ambitious, brighter tone for the new Guided Tour, also from Mack Avenue. This is a quartet with Burton leading as one might do with a piano. Sanchez really drives this music. It’s a bigger sound than you would typically expect from a quartet. Burton is leading an exploration not entirely different from Jarrett, but more clearly articulated, more melodic, catchier. The difference is the way that Julian Lage is playing electric guitar, almost as if he’s playing in the style of Burton and his vibes on “Jane Fonda Called Again,” never passive or receding or relaxed, but instead, aggressive and punchy. Yes, they play pretty, too, working the pastoral mood on “Jackalope,”  and the Latin romance of “Helena” (especially nice guitar from Lage on this one), but it is so much more fun when these guys really go for it, with Burton playing fast and strong. Best example is probably the last track, written by drummer Sanchez, called “Monk Fish.” Scott Colley is the capable, but less showy, bassist; tough to get a word in edge-wise when the other players are clearly having so much fun. Far livelier than the other two CDs, Guided Tour is a terrific introduction to the Burton’s massive catalog.

What a great night of jazz listening. I haven’t enjoyed writing an article about anything in I don’t know how long. Thanks for the opportunity. Go–listen!

Superior Gift: Piano CDs by Corea, Jarrett and Lubimov

Yeah, it took me a while to understand what I was listening to, or two, and why I kept playing a pair of paired discs time and again. (Okay, sorry, I will slow down.)

For much of this past month, I have been listening to passionate, impressionistic performances by several extraordinary piano players (plus one more).

This sequence of listening began when I attended a wonderful performance by Chick Corea and his friend and frequent collaborator, Gary Burton. They’ve been on tour with the Harlem String Quartet, presenting a remarkably consistent, and now quite differentiated, version of late 20th and early 21st century jazz. Corea is a tireless composer, a man filled with ideas, a creative person never satisfied with one course of action. Like Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck (also a Corea collaborator), and others who have been performing for several decades, Corea has one career with Burton, another as part of a jazz trio (with Christian McBridge and Brian Blade), and still another with Bobby McFerrin. The Burton performance was stunning, perfect in its way, endlessly interesting, and sufficiently inspiring to make me want to see Corea in his other formats.

Which leads (at long last!) to the focus of this particular blog post, whose initial conception did not include Corea at all. Instead, it was to focus on Keith Jarrett, whose career has been somewhat more conventional in that he plays fabulous solo concerts–the newest being Rio, which was recorded in Rio de Janeiro–and as part of a trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on percussion. There are probably two dozen Jarrett solo recordings, and every one is similar, but in its way, exhilarating, original, compelling, and consistently inventive. This is probably one of the best of the lot, but there are so many fine examples, it’s difficult to choose (and you certainly won’t go wrong if you purchase any of them). Rather than recommending one or two, I think it’s wiser for me to point you to a page that lists all of them on the wonderful All Music Guide site.

Jarrett and Corea worked together in Miles Davis’s band in 1970–a very long time ago in musical terms. It’s fascinating to listen to those nearly-a-half-century-old recordings, those initial flights into a fresher, freer, easier, less structured form of jazz and to consider the stops along the way, a way that has been so elaborately documented on some many recordings (for the most part, excellent recordings, with only the occasional excursion into dubious territory).

Now I find myself comparing Jarrett’s RIO with something much older, but very much from the same spring. Here, the composer is Claude Debussy. The pianist is Alexei Lubimov, sometimes playing his Bechstein beside another Alexei, in this case, Alexei Zuev, on his Steinway piano. Perhaps it’s the elegance, the presentation, the combination of control and fireworks, the seriousness… or the extraordinary skill that compels me to consider Debussy and Jarrett’s recordings as ideal companions for an extended listening session on a gloriously rainy or snowy afternoon. The latter is not new music–it predates Jarrett by more than a century–but the sense of freedom, the phrasing, the flights of fantasy and ecsstacy on, for example, “La puerta del vino,” sounds more like 21st century jazz to my ears than it sounds like traditional classical music.

At a certain point, writing about music really is like dancing about architecture, so I’ll stop here and not embarrass myself with a flurry of comments about Debussy’s individual preludes and how nicely they’re carried off by Lubimov on Preludes.

As the music begins to fade, and friends are pulling up to the house after a long drive (they’ll be hungry), allow me to simply recommend a pair of very good piano recordings, each a pair in itself (each is a 2-CD set), perhaps the ideal gift for just about anybody willing to take the time to really listen. Both packages are excellent.

Let me end with a note to myself: I need to learn a lot more about Alexei Lubimov, and spend time listening to his past work. He’s a new name for me, and after of month of listening to him play the piano, I am beginning to understand the many internet claims… he may be one of our contemporary keyboard musicians. I suspect Lubimov deserves a proper article of his own. Getting to work right now…

Jack DeJohnette: One of The Best


Jack DeJohnette is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose career is largely unknown to those who do not follow jazz. Too bad. (Let’s do what we can to remedy the situation.)

Background: He came up through Chicago’s avant-garde scene, working as part of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians); played with John Coltrane’s quintet in 1966; then worked with a young Keith Jarrett in Charles Lloyd’s group; then made some history as a drummer on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew sessions (and on eight other albums from the early 1970s); soon, his circle included John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Dave Holland. In fact, for 25 years, he has been a part of a trio with Keith Jarrett on piano, and Gary Peacock on bass–their series of Standards albums are extraordinary (watch them here). The complete list of DeJohnette albums and collaborations is a long one; fortunately, Wikipedia maintains a good list. As both a leader and a co-conspirator, DeJohnette’s portfolio includes so many albums, so much excellent work, that it may be difficult to know where to begin.

For starters, I’d suggest a 1984 CD called Album Album because it offers both an avant-garde sensibility and easy access for anyone willing to take the time to listen. The interplay between saxophones–the formidable David Murray on tenor,  the lesser known John Purcell on alto and soprano, and a young Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone sax–is consistently inventive, with a relentless flow of interesting ideas, varied textures, and explorations of old ideas made new. DeJohnette is the controlling influence, ever present, often leading the way. Plus, there’s this sense of style, short bursts in lavish settings, that provide the basis for an album released in 2009–that’s 25 years later–called Music We Are.

For DeJohnette, the melodica is an old friend: he played melodica on his first significant solo album, excerpted here on YouTube. On the 2009 release, the melodica provides a winning c

ombination of tango sensibility, bits of remaining avant-garde (sounding more mainstream here, perhaps due to the passage of time), and the kind of atmospheric soundscape that was central to Weather Report’s earliest work. The creative collaboration here is with pianist Danilo Perez, who explains, in the album’s liner notes, that he has been playing with DeJohnette since 1992, and that his first encounter with the famous drummer was listening to DeJohnette playing “some beautiful piano.” John Patitucci plays electric and upright bass. They work together beautifully. That is to say: this is a very special album, one that pulls together so many different jazz styles, so successfully, that it defies categorization. It swings, it makes you think, it makes you dance, it does a whole lot of stuff really well.

In fact, they explain how it all comes together on a 25-minute DVD that comes, free, with the Music We Are CD. This is a solid documentary, explaining the creative process from composition and performance through recording and editing. After watching it, you will wonder why every CD doesn’t include an accompanying “how we did it” DVD.

Hey, I was going to write about the newest DeJohnette CD, Sound Travels, but this article is probably long enough. I will write about Sound Travels soon, I promise.

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